Jitney Review Page


By Christopher Goss

The ten-play cycle August Wilson created to represent each decade of the 20th Century is the most significant theatricalizing of African-American life. Yet despite its complexity it is remarkably accessible. Despite the sometimes mythic obstacles they face, his characters retain the down-to-earth, life-beyond-the-play fullness of people who wandered onstage off the street. This palpable sense of a world both familiar and allegorical is currently filling Hollywood’s Lillian Theater, with the Stagewalkers’ production of Wilson’s 'Jitney,' through November 19.

This engaging staging owes much of its heart to a director who had a hand in helping Wilson's world begin to form. In 1978, Wilson was in St. Paul visiting his friend Claude Purdy when Purdy convinced him to move from Pittsburgh to Minnesota. There, Purdy encouraged Wilson, a poet, to try playwriting. As Wilson later told 'The New York Times,' "Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately." The writer found a fish-and-chips restaurant where he could sit and work and in less than two weeks he produced a draft of his first play. Set in a Pittsburgh office where men ran gypsy cabs, called “jitneys,” the play earned Wilson a $200-a-month fellowship with the Minneapolis Playwrights Center.

'Jitney' made a non-professional run at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre before being put up on blocks for 15 years. Wilson rode a second play, 'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,' through the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and all the way to Broadway, where it won critical acclaim and set the stage for 'Fences,' 'Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,' 'The Piano Lesson,' 'Two Trains Running' and 'Seven Guitars' – two of which earned Pulitzer Prizes. In 1996, Wilson revised 'Jitney' for a professional premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

As the first story Wilson chose to tell, back in the Minnesota days with Purdy, and about people who at the time were his 1970s contemporaries, 'Jitney' has a special place in the cycle's evolution. As a new production staged by Mr. Purdy himself, the Stagewalkers' run is an historic event.

Seeing a great cast fill the 99-seat Lillian Theater is a slice of heaven – or Hill District.

Against the backdrop of the 1970s, that decade between the explosive, redefining ‘60s and the reactionary ‘80s, the characters in 'Jitney' focus on their individual stories. Nevertheless, their actions are inseparable from what’s going on in the society around them. Purdy's direction brings out the significance of both the personal and the socio-political.

The jitney station is a loose confederation of men overseen by Becker (the imposing James Avery). It is a man’s world of mostly older characters. The exceptions are Youngblood (an impressive Russell Andrews), a driver who wants to get ahead and support his family, and Becker’s son, “Booster” (Richard Brooks), trying to reconcile with his father after a lengthy prison term. Becker is a strict but caring father figure for his workers, but unforgiving of his son. It’s hard to empathize with Becker, whose son seems not to bear the scars of incarceration -- other than the subtle way Brooks' arms hang when he walks, still in front so as not to pull against phantom handcuffs. Ultimately, the man who holds both the key to the station’s future and his son’s redemption will pass away in the play, leaving a fatherless void like the one Wilson grew up in. Interestingly, when Wilson began 'Jitney,' he was months away from meeting Lloyd Richards at the O’Neill Center. When he sat down to revise the play, Richards had become Wilson’s father figure.

Among the rest of the cast, John Toles-Bey provides a bravura performance as Turnbo, a driver who can’t stay out of other people’s business. As Fielding, Mel Winkler creates another vivid character, and one scene that is an acting clinic on the secret to playing drunk -- don't play the inebriation, play the hiding of it. Alex Morris is solid as Doub and Bill Lee Brown, as the numbers-running Shealy, seems worth breaking off into his own story. Daryl Alan Reed gives Philmore, a sometime customer with the least stage time, a good run, too.

Wilson did create one female character for 'Jitney,' Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena, and Lizette Diaz Carrion shows it is one of his more potent female characters, despite its limited stage time. Between the older and younger generations in 'Jitney,' the concepts of friendship and family relations are in transition. It is the passing of the central character, with so much unresolved, that is the catalyst for the friends and the relatives to step in to carry on.

Wilson, whose life ended in 2005, just months after he finished his tenth play, left us a theatrical world that, while beautifully ordered, will always warrant exploration. And, for a few more weeks, theatergoers in Los Angeles have a hansom production through which to explore one unique corner of that world, with a friend of the family at the wheel.

- Christopher Goss